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Issue 178, Friday 27 February 2004 - 6 Muharram 1425
An aberration of justice
Home Secretary, David Blunkett’s controversial proposals for secret ‘pre-emptive’ trials send a clear signal of a further travesty of justice that we all should be aware of. His announcement made in New Delhi this month, is a memorial to 2,000 Indians shot by British troops as they protested over imprisonment without trial in Amritsar in 1919. Among those voicing alarm are solicitor, Gareth Peirce, representing detainees under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001. She warned that the new proposals were the second part of locking up foreign nationals indefinitely without trial on the basis of mere suspicion that will “shame the country.”
Suspects, extended to all accused under the generic term of terrorism, and their lawyers, will not know what evidence is being presented - only that it will be largely based upon “intelligence”. It is a proposal that shows an unsatiable appetite the Home Secretary appears to have for unchecked powers that violate minimum international norms and discard mandatory safeguards for a fair trial.
The aim of introducing pre-emptive trials switches the burden of proof from “beyond reasonable doubt” to the “balance of probabilities.” It comes when accusations that Blunkett has already connived in creating his Camp X-Ray at Belmarsh top security prison in south-west London.
The Home Secretary has pledged to forward a discussion paper soon and hopes to address the issue before the next General Election. Arguing that “the threat from suicide bombers was now so great that the burden of proof in British courts may have to be lowered”, he said his proposals were to “deal with these delicate issues of proportionality and human rights on the one hand and evidential base and the threshold of evidence on the other.”
The detention of foreign nationals without trial has already been criticised by a committee of MPs, led by Lord Newton of Braintree, which Blunkett says he will address when a review of the 2001 Terrorism Act is due to be debated in March.
He has indicated that he remains unrepentant about the need to abrogate from the rights for a fair trial enshrined in the European Human Rights Convention despite being censured by civil liberties groups.
Britain already has the notorious distinction of having most draconian anti-terror laws in Western Europe and the particular concern of the Muslim community is that Blunkett’s “proportionality” will be directed collectively against the country’s 1.8 million Muslim population. The Muslim Council of Britain has warned that lowering the burden of proof “does not inspire confidence that a lot of this will be based on evidence from intelligence sources in light of the intelligence blunders over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
The introduction of pre-emptive trials may be in line with a doctrine of more laws, greater powers and stiffer penalties but as with the pre-emptive war against Iraq, it will not make British citizens any safer by undermining the foundations of justice.
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